blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]

Memories of St Helena

Well, back in the day…

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]

Memory is the storehouse in which the substance of our knowledge is treasured up.
Charles Bridges

This page contains short stories written by people who visited St Helena long ago, recalling their visits.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Memories of St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]

Go to: 1939: HMS Neptune and the Cable & Wireless staff1956: An Unexpected Storm1962: Jean Johnston’s Diary1967: DWS posting1944: Poem by servicemen stationed here1933: Mrs. Bolwell, serviceman’s wife1911: Passenger on the SS Papanui1961: Sailor aboard HMS Puma

If you made a visit to St Helena at least twenty years ago and would like to contribute a few paragraphs (and maybe some photos) for this page, please contact us. We welcome contributions from anybody{1}.

Please note: we have illustrated some of the stories with contemporary photographs, though these were not necessarily taken by the author of the story.

1939: HMS Neptune and the Cable & Wireless staff

A story told by Tim Cattley{2}’s father, from December 1939.

During World War 1 (‘The Great War’) the German Navy decided to attack the Cable & Wireless station on Cocos, to sever the ‘Victorian Internet’ and thus disadvantage the British forces. The attack succeeded in damaging the station but not in putting it completely out of action, and the attacking German vessel, the Emden, was sunk in the ensuing battle. All of which has no direct relation to St Helena except that, in 1939 the Cable & Wireless staff around the world, including on St Helena, felt somewhat exposed and jumpy about the possibility that Germany might well try the same tactics again. It must be remembered that international communications technology had hardly progressed in the inter-war years and long distance contacts were still only available via the subterranean telegraph cable.

One night in December 1939, late one evening and completely out of the blue with no warning, a brilliant searchlight-type beam of light from the sea but quite close inshore suddenly started sweeping over the houses in Jamestown and also up both valley sides. The alarm was immediately raised, everybody assuming it was a German warship about to launch an attack. Everybody scrambled for cover.

HMS Neptune [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
HMS Neptune

Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, the searchlight was extinguished and in its place a morse signal light started winking, spelling out:


Fresh trousers all around, one would imagine!

The Wikipedia records:

In December 1939, several months after war was declared, Neptune was patrolling in the South Atlantic in pursuit of German surface raider pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee. Neptune, with other patrolling Royal Navy heavy units, was sent to Uruguay in the aftermath of the Battle of the River Plate. However, she was still in transit when the Germans scuttled Graf Spee off Montevideo on 17 December.

1956: An Unexpected Storm

Story told by Owen George, working on St Helena as Emergency Electrical/Mechanical Engineer for Government of St Helena, published in the St Helena News 20th April 2001{3}

One night in June 1956, in reasonably calm weather, 4 boats set out to fish for Mackerel in James’ Bay for the Island’s consumption.

During the early hours of the morning a sudden windstorm blew at gale forces of between 6-7 and caught the crews of the boats completely off guard. The nearest boat to the shore, No 19, stayed anchored, but the other three boats, Nos 1, 32 & 24, were further out and had to take evasive action, almost to their peril, by trying to row to safety.

The conditions overcame them and they became distressed by being blown even further out to sea to a distance of 5 miles.

Albert Fowler noticed their struggle for survival at 5 o’clock that morning while descending Jacob’s Ladder on his way to work, and instead of leaving the Ladder at halfway (his usual route) he continued to the bottom to report what he had seen to the night Constable, Ted Hudson.

After confirming what was reported, Constable Hudson immediately roused the Chief of Police, Superintendent Charles Osborne, who without hesitation rang me, explained the situation and asked if I could assist because I happened to be the Emergency Electrical/Mechanical Engineer for PWD. I immediately proceeded to the Wharf on my allocated motorcycle where I was met by Supt. Osborne who explained more about the crisis we had on our hands.

I agreed to help but the only boat available was The Cairo (a 40-seat open lifeboat from the SS City of Cairo, which had been sunk by a submarine during World War 2. The boat was powered by an 8hp Morris Marine engine) I asked for volunteers and two fishermen, Percy Yon and Harold Mercury were willing to assist but not in the Cairo as the boat was not powerful enough to tow the boats back to safety. I agreed but maintained that we could save the lives of 12 fishermen even if the boats were lost. On this basis they agreed.

Before we set off I asked the Supt. of Police to contact Cyril (Siddy) Young, Foreman of the Wharf at the time, and notified him of the situation and told him that that we would need more help.

This done we set off from the steps and headed for the farthest boat checking the other three on our way and assuring them that help was on its way. Boat No 19 with Charles Stevens, John Caswell and Julius Fowler on board; then boat No 1 with Charles Henry, Fred Thomas and Duncan on board. We then proceeded to check boat No 32 in which Hopey Joshua, Fred Drabble and Billy Cranfield. The boat had a 5hp Seagull engine, which was swamped and would not start. The most distant boat was no 24, which was really in trouble and it should be borne in mind that being the farthest out the crew, Humphrey Benjamin, Sam Bennett and Swainie had suffered the brunt of the storm and were fighting a losing battle with one good oar and two half broken ones. It was only a matter of time before our worst fears for their safety would have been realised.

We managed to put a towline aboard and towed our way towards boat 32, where we were spared the decision of taking both crews aboard and losing the other two to the sea as the Yellowfin with Siddy and Dan Francis aboard came into sight. We managed to hold on until she came along side and the lines were transferred. They promptly set off in the direction of the two remaining boats and eventually towed all 4 back to safety. The Yellowfin then turned to our aid but we had made good albeit slow progress in heading for safety ourselves. However we did experience a difficult moment when a freak wave struck the bow of the Cairo broadside, turning it at 90° to the weather. Luckily there was a brief lull during which time we were able to correct our course.

By the time we had navigated between West Rocks and Breakneck Point the Yellowfin had us in tow and we headed for the head buoy. Suddenly the Yellowfin’s engine packed up and we rapidly switched the towropes and the Cairo towed Yellowfin to her moorings.

Both boats were secured and their crews safely transported ashore by dinghy where we were questioned by the Doctor and given some liquid refreshment after which everyone went their separate ways and back to their respective jobs; mine at the time was installing the starboard navigation lights at Ladder Hill.

Today only Charles Henry (Boer) and myself are left to tell the tale of a job which had to be done. And by the Grace of God and the prompt actions of Albert Fowler and Supt. Osborne - it was.

1962: Jean Johnston’s Diary

Contemporary photos{a}
Landing at The Wharf [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Landing at The Wharf
Kids at Castle [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Kids at Castle
Governor Alford ’s car [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Governor Alford’s car
Fishing party [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Fishing party
Daphne Fowler [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Daphne Fowler
Kids with the car [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Kids with the car
‘Gollie’(?) & family [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
‘Gollie’(?) & family
Kids, Sunday at Sandy Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Kids, Sunday at Sandy Bay
Skiffle Group [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Skiffle Group
Filming at Jacob’s Ladder [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Filming at Jacob’s Ladder

At the beginning of 1962 a film crew, comprising Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost, came to make a film about St Helena. Bob Johnson brought his wife, Jean who kept a diary during the visit. Extracts from this diary appear below. Many of the still photographs they took, sound recordings they made and some extracts from the film appear elsewhere on this website{a} and some more are shown here (right). The film, called ‘Island of Saint Helena’, is available on YouTube™

THE JOURNEY, 28th [December 1961]: Due to leave at 2.00pm (‘Kenya Castle’). Actually we leave at 9am the following day. Then promptly return to Cape Town with engine trouble. Supposed to leave Sunday 31st at 7am. Eventually leave at midday!

THE ARRIVAL: The shape looms on the horizon. Overcast and certainly grim. I imagine myself to be Nova Castella and Napoleon. The Island takes shape. Is it a mistake to read about a place first? Mr Cross A.D.C. comes aboard to check us out before landing. Suspicious of our intent. We have been expected and are at pains to insist we do not plan to make a political statement film. Why should we want to? Going off is more perilous than one supposed. We have so much clobber including loose fruit in Charles’ hat. Sea gushes through ‘Needle’ The waves are rough. We try and try again. At last I am off with a jump and great assistance. The jump is fun.

FIRST VIEWS: We walk up to the town while waves crash lacy foam onto the road. Tree, moat, castle then town, all as expected. Tourists and sailors crowd town and hotel, the latter intent on getting drunk. Post Office, souvenir sellers, much confusion. We feel superior because we are staying. Hotel and surrounding buildings charming. Down to harbour to watch activity; accosted all the way but left alone when explaining we are not trippers. Drinks in courtyard, dinner, walk in town, delightful. Christmas decorations, neat houses, artificial flowers on steps.

GETTING ACQUAINTED: We soon fit into different lives so easily. Largest shorts in the world! Learn street names. Islanders very friendly - Good Evening - Good Night continually. ‘White Ants’(Termites) attacking antique furniture. Large trees under which slaves were reputedly sold. Whitewashed cliffs (“Hearty Welcome to Royal Family”; “God save the Queen”; “Welcome the Duke - 1957”). The seasons are referred to by visiting ships’ names - Warwick, Kenya, Durban, Braemar. Bathrooms are at far end of rickety passage. Island of cats - Jack the hotel cat sleeps on a packing case. Fourteen shillings for jeans in the ‘Star’. Up the stairs and through locked doors to fitting room. A handsome gilt mirror. After lunch stroll up Napoleon Street{4} and are offered lift by Mr Johns who is going to play golf. Longwood is small. Drinks at Bishop Beardmore’s. Cider and cheese straws. Quaint names: Nosegay Lane, BackWay. Noise, children playing. People sit on the pavement steps. War Memorial and donkeys.

EVENING DANCE: We are the first to arrive. Dancing to unrecognisable National Anthem as Governor Alford and his Lady arrive. Island girls are pretty and smart. English Ladies are most unfriendly. Only four tunes played over and over. Clap and the same tune again. “Take your partners for the Valeta”.

SHOPPING: Market - mainly bananas on sale, otherwise pretty poor selection. Mr Stevens, the butcher, known as the “tyrant Stevens”. Notices in shop: “Bring clean container”; “Do not crowd the meat shop”; “Examine meat carefully”; “Please eat Pork”.

VISITING: Meet E.A. Thorpe, 87 years, leading citizen with car and chauffeur. Lives at Oak Bank, an elegant old house. Dining room table stands in polish tins of paraffin to avoid white ants. Meet Edwin Thorpe. Beautiful drive: ferns, flax, flowers. House built by East India Company, 250 years old. Grand but shabby. Addresses us: Madame, Miss, Sir, Squire. Biscuits, ham, sandwiches, ‘paste’ sandwiches, wonderful tea and cake. Thorpe knew woman who saw Napoleon. Call at Miss Pritchard to leave note. Narrow gate, bougainvillea, jacaranda, oleander. Miss Pritchard surprised at Governor’s snub. Pritchards came in 1666 - she is the last. Invited to see Salvation Army band at 7.00pm in Market Square on Saturday. Captain du Plessis, born in Brakpan. We pass Plantation House on the way back, very beautiful. Look down the Ladder at a cardboard little town. We are told that boys used to slide down the ladder with tureens of soup on their tummies for sentries below. Children’s Parade, Friendly Society band plays a waltz. Stand on step opposite and are offered cushions by friendly man. Salvation Army girls play trumpets - I join in the singing.

SUNDAY MORNING WALK: Up Ladder with Charles to investigate fort at top. 1902 on keystone. We are joined by 3 little girls. Ethel (‘Effel’) is the spokes lady, Gaye and Souree. Walk to rifle range and back through cactus. Ethel, barefoot, wanders along with us singing ‘I don’t know why I love you like I do’ and ‘Sailor when you cross the sea, promise you’ll come back to me’. Walls built of bottles. Flower-boxes built on gun emplacements. View forever out to sea.

SUNDAY EVENING: Rival priests go by. Many ardent church-goers. Inhabitants sit on the steps; so do we. Father Flint tells us the weather vane on the church steeple was once a fish. We find its battered remains in the churchyard. Later we see him with cassock rolled up changing a tyre.

VISIT TO FLAX MILLS: Thorpe’s flax mill; Fairyland; Bamboo Hedge. Spectacular scenery. Black tea, bread and margarine for lunch. Donkey train carries bundles of flax. All the peaks come into view; not a common sight. Girl gathering flax is called Daphne Fowler.

SUNDAY 14th: St. Matthew’s for the parade of Church Lads Brigade. Rain, wind and chilly. Beautiful scenery. Lads in blue with white sashes look fine coming along the road by Hutt’s Gate. Bishop arrives with a suitcase full of mumbo-jumbo and flunky. Samuels runs out to carry it. The S. African anglers spend their day lounging in the gloomy lounge, listening to the radio, drinking beer and telling dirty jokes, all except one nice young member who has started a torrid romance with pretty auburn-haired local girl. What about when he has to go home to SA, I wonder? Excited to see a ship sail by, but apparently it is a pretty common experience; just wants to see the island.

MONDAY 15th: Met Anthony, with a donkey called Girlie, pronounced ‘Gollie’. Walk up to Heart-shaped Waterfall, beautiful valley, patches of cultivation, terns fly past, light rain or spray. Car breaks down but is fixed with screwdriver and beer tin. Magnificent garden with grove of moonflower. Another wonderful tea, St Helena tomato paste, pancakes, home-made butter and plum jam plus fruit cake.

WEDS. 17th: High Knoll is impressive, so ghostly and forbidding. Car breaks down but is fixed again (overheating). A glorious day, the first and Jamestown looks charming in the sunshine. In the blue, blue sea the shape of the Papanui wreck shows clearly in the bay. Statice and everlasting grow amongst the ruins of High Knoll. Two small girls follow us about. Back down again we swim, delightful but deep water. At night Charles and Bob rig up a floodlight and blow the town’s electricity. We sit on steps opposite.

FRIDAY 19th: Walk along coastal path to Rupert’s Bay, taking Anthony and his donkey ‘Gollie’ to carry the equipment. Munden’s Fort, the place where the Bahreini prisoners stayed, is spectacularly situated above the glassy green and brilliantly blue sea. It is very hot along the cliffs. A wonderful swim after lunch. Prepare for the Young Farmers’ dance. Dance held at Guinea Grass, big crowd in small hall decorated with Union Jacks and geraniums. We recorded the band, sounds mainly of accordion and fiddle. The Paul Jones is the favourite dance. Difficult to dance with islanders who do most peculiar steps. Seems to be quite customary for women to dance together.

SATURDAY 20th: Dress up for Governor’s invitation to lunch at Plantation House. We arrive a bit early and admire Jonathan, the tortoise. Lady Alford offers him a banana. Governor and Tony Cross arrive in his open car with flag flying, a nice touch. Pleasant lunch with conversation turning to birds.

TUESDAY 23RD: Napoleon’s tomb. Beautiful valley, begonias, lilies, nasturtiums, geraniums, periwinkle and cannas. Tricolour flies. Prosperous Bay. We get rather lost in an eroded and completely different type of country (Fisher’s Valley) and our car breaks down but soon mended by the boys. Home to find George Eastwood having a party which is gay and goes on till midnight. We buy china lavatory chain pulls at the ‘Emporium’. Mangoes and grenadillas hanging like grapes. People speak of “white aunts”.

WEDS 24th: We set off to climb Diana’s Peak. A most exhausting climb but beautiful. Arriving in a state of collapse we discover that we are on Actaeon instead. Falling, bleeding, slipping and sliding. Rock ridge road. Puncture with loud explosion. Helpful people lift the car as no jack. A lovely stretch of road with a huge shabby lovely old farm house at the top of the road. Atmosphere quite Italian.

SATURDAY 27th: We discover that there is a local broadcasting station - ‘The Ham of Half Tree Hollow’. Francis Plain, rather stinky from flax mill above. Walk to Heart-Shaped Waterfall; super view down. Cinema in evening. To the amazement of ‘the quality’ we sit downstairs, feel a bit scratchy. Audience laughs uproariously. Down to the docks afterwards in the dark to watch the young men going away for Ascension Island. Many have guitars, some tearful farewells.

WEDNESDAY 31st: Martineau phones, he is taking his speech very seriously. He meets us at Longwood Houseand conducts us around. Gives permission for filming of prints. We go to his quarters to read speech and listen to suggested music. His house is elegant. Meet mother who speaks little English and knits constantly. Rush up to school atop Ladder after lunch. Principal Mr. Broadway very helpful; subjects include singing, dancing and composition. Standing at the top of Ladder Hill we see everyone go by. Little Joyce poses sweetly also a very small Jackie Kwan with front teeth missing. Cactus country.

SATURDAY 2nd FEB: Film the boys’ skiffle band at foot of ladder and boys slide down expertly. WMCA march through town; sashes, banners and medals. Men in sober suits and hats. Town very busy and gay.

WEDNESDAY: A scramble of packing and saying goodbye. Very very hot. We and many locals are in tears. Mrs Richards gives me a goodbye kiss and a present. Out to the ship (Durban Castle). Kennedy and Geo. Moss leave with the stevedores in the last boat. Bob Kuhn falls off the gangplank into the sea; dragged out laughing. All the Benjamins weep. We stand sadly at the stern as the ship leaves at dusk. Our last sight is the headlights of Geo. Moss’s car climbing Side Path, then darkness.

1967: DWS posting

Valerie Carne remembers her first posting in 1967 to St Helena with her husband Alan, a member of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS), and their two young sons.

After an anxious year in the Service including a temporary posting to Bechuanaland, Alan finally come home and said “Well I’ve got my posting”. “Where?” I asked. My heart was in my mouth while I waited for the name. “St Helena Island,” he said. The atlas was out in a second. A dot in the middle of a page. My mind was full of questions. When, how long for, how do we yet there? So many, many questions.

It was certainly going to be a different sort of life. We were told that the widest part of the Island was only about five miles. The population was about 5,000 and there were about 5,000 donkeys. There was no airport because there was almost no flat land. Just large enough for one football pitch. So no airmail. Ships came about once every six weeks. Some fresh food was produced locally but was not always available. This remote British island was where Napoleon had been imprisoned. How on earth were we going to manage with our two young sons?

The Johnson’s representative donating boxes of nappy liners to Valerie and her son, Adrian on board the Capetown Castle [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
The Johnson’s representative donating boxes of nappy liners to Valerie and her son, Adrian on board the Capetown Castle

First of all we thought about supplies to take with us. I contacted Bachelors who offered us boxes of ‘Expedition Packs’ containing a variety of fruits and vegetables. We ordered several of these. Then we bought commercial size containers of tea bags, coffee, dried milk, even dried eggs. I contacted Johnson’s and asked if I could purchase a large quantity of nappy liners (as it was long before the days of disposable nappies). They sent me six boxes of six packs, free of charge provided we agreed to have a photo in the trade magazine (we had to obtain Foreign Office permission for this.) We bought clothes, pharmaceuticals, toiletries, cosmetics and an enormous quantity of stationary and writing materials. We purchased a large wooden kennel so that our Boxer could travel with us.

The journey to our new home

The voyage was magical. Being waited on, luxurious food, a pool a crèche and a pet deck were all new experiences for us. We met Islanders on the ship and I had trouble understanding their special old-world English accent. I wondered how we could possibly cope if we had to converse with them. The ship took us directly to St Helena but because of the low-lying harbour at Jamestown we had to get a long boat to take us from the ship to the landing place. This last part of the journey was very tough because of the Cape rollers (high waves) and our son, Adam was very seasick.

Home was in Longwood, near to where Napoleon had been incarcerated. It was a fenced-off compound with an anti-donkey grid at the entrance. Inside were about a dozen rather nice bungalows built from a sort of kit, rather like a prefab. Our bungalow had a well-stocked fridge and freezer thanks to the thoughtfulness and generosity of our predecessors the late Alan Stoneham and his wife Joyce. The accommodation had all the usual rooms and a balcony, a carport and a small garden Eventually we realised that the balcony faced the wrong direction and was always in the shade and exposed to the winds. The houses appeared to have been built the wrong way round!


The first thing I missed was the daily newspapers. The ship had brought with it at least the previous week’s (if not month’s) papers, all supplied by the Office, but as Alan was one of the most junior members of staff and latest arrival on post, we were last on the list. I decided it was just too slow for me and in my first letter home I asked my mother to send me as many newspapers as she could. Imagine the shock when the next ship arrived to find that we, personally, had about 50 newspapers. My mother had sent them every day! We looked at this massive pile of papers and lost interest. I asked my mother never to send them again.

Communication with home was quite a problem until the Office allowed a telegram every fortnight. One week we could write to Alan’s mother and a fortnight later we could write to my parents. They were not long letters - just a few sentences to let our families know how we were.

Within days of arriving we started to meet the local people. Everyone was very friendly and wanting to get to know us. We were soon ‘adopted’ by Duggie Crowie, and from that moment on we never went short of anything. Whether it was eggs, vegetables, meat, or non-food items, Duggie would always help us obtain them.

Dancing and fishing

St Helena wives [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
St Helena wives

Most of the wives did something to help the local community. I decided to help out with the Guides and Brownies because I had done it before in England. The enthusiasm was incredible. Six-year-olds, knitted their own Brownie hats seemingly without a pattern. Fund-raising was a bit of a problem, so the children suggested having a dance. Dances were extremely popular on the Island. We managed to find a suitable date and venue and were discussing the music when several of the little girls asked if their brothers could play for it. I asked how old they were and was told anything from seven upwards. I hated to disappoint them but said we really needed an adult band. The girls made it clear that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Eventually everything was organised. On the night the girls were allowed to come along for an hour or so. Imagine my surprise when the band turned up with several boys not much older than the Brownies and all family members. “They always play at dances Miss!

Fishing was one of the main hobbies. It could be spear fishing or rod and line. It was always another excuse for a party. We usually took out a boat early in the morning and would join about 20 other enthusiasts. We often took the children with us. When we arrived at the chosen spot, the younger men would go off with their spear guns while the more mature and the women would sit on the rocks, sometimes with just a piece of string and a hook. The women would always bring some large cooking pots and lots of rice, curry powder, bacon, and herbs, spices and anything else they happened to fancy. When the fish were cleaned they were cooked with all these other ingredients into what was called ‘plow’ I don’t know how they spelt it but it was a form of pillau. It was quite delicious.

All in all it was definitely a unique experience with its highs and its lows. It is over 40 years since we were posted there. Last year one of the communicators on post with us, Dick Young, died. His widow Cynthia held a reception/wake after the funeral service. Alan and I sat down at a table and so many ex-St Helena people joined to, in the end another table had to be brought to accommodate us all. Whatever the island did to and for us all we shared this strange isolation with each other and became lifelong friends, almost like a family. On this occasion, we had lost a member of that family. Despite another 30 years of postings there has never been another quite like The Island and the relationships we formed there.

1944: Poem by servicemen stationed here

This poem was first printed in May 1944 in ‘The Bush Telegraph’ (a.k.a. St Helena Command Magazine), for circulation amongst the troops:

A Poem by ‘Sparks’

Servicemen, 1943 [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]

Come to sunny St Helena, gem of the southern seas.
Come and hear the palm trees whisper, as they sway in the perfumed breeze.

Come sail o’er the sparkling water. Come swim in the blue lagoon.
Let some dark-eyed beauty teach you how to love ’neath a tropic moon.

Come stroll along lovely highways to magnificent Sandy Bay.
Or over the hills to Longwood where an Emperor passed away.

Come and climb green Diana’s Peak and lofty Flagstaff Hill.
Come where the snow-white lilies grow, by every stream and rill.

Come visit our Super Cinema and admire all the latest stars.
Come sample our fine liqueurs and wine and forget about distant wars.

Come see the sweet Eves in this Eden. But beware lest they lead you astray.
These beautiful maids are on parade. They whisper so softly “Yes - eh?

Come to dusty St Helena, island of bugs and fleas.
Come and taste our sawdust sausages. And our putrid M. & Vs{5}.

Come look in vain for the palm trees, for the ruddy things ain’t there.
And the tropic moon shines down instead on a waste of ‘Prickly Pear’.

The roads are zig-zag mountain tracks that make even the donkeys bray.
And Longwood is as cold and bare as it was in old “Nappy’s” day.

Come and climb Jacobs Ladder at eleven O’clock each night.
It’s bad enough when you’re sober, but just try it when you’re tight.

The pictures change but once a week and as for the local bars.
You can get beer, but it’s mighty dear, and you drink out of old Jam-Jars.

You may have your sweet Eves and your Eden. All I say is “Roll on the day”.
When waving ‘Goodbye’ we will tumble aboard a homeward bound ship in the Bay.

Well, mates, I’ve just been fooling. Now I’ll tell you the truth and say.
That all we sailors are agreed. This island is - O.K.

1933: Mrs. Bolwell, serviceman’s wife

An account of their stay here was written in c.1933 by Violet Bolwell, wife of Royal Marines Signals Officer Bert Bolwell, who was based at Signal House. They and their son Dennis (and second son Keith, born here in November 1929) were posted here from 1929-1933. She wrote her account on her return to England. Much of it relates to nothing more significant than the usual ex-pat interactions (with reference to Saints only as incidental characters){6}. However some of her observations are interesting to understand how the island was in the early 1930s, so extracts are reproduced below:

Ladder Hill Signal Station [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Ladder Hill Signal Station

I awoke early next[first] morning and heard noises in the kitchen and living-room. I asked Bert what it could be. “Oh, that will be Lena, lighting the fire and getting things ready for breakfast. All the wives here have maids to help them. They don’t cost much as we feed them and pay them a small sum monthly.” It seems that Lena’s brother worked in the Barracks and when he heard that I was going out there, he asked Bert if his sister, who was 14 years old and had just left school, could come and work for us. Lena and I got on well together and I’m pleased to say that she stayed with me all the time we were there. She was a slightly built girl with brown skin, big brown eyes and a thick plait of black hair. She was a little shy but had a lovely smile and was very mannerly.

The Barracks were situated at the top of Ladder Hill on the edge of the Cliffs, 700ft above sea level[Ladder Hill Fort]. They had been built in Napoleon’s time and they were solid stone buildings with tin roofs. As one entered the gates one saw a big area of stony, well-flattened ground. This was the Parade Ground and it faced the sea with a stone wall along the cliff edge and with several obsolete cannon mounted on concrete pointing seawards. In the far corner on the right-hand side was the Signal Station, just above, a patch of spare ground, then the Billiards Hall and several storerooms. These all looked down over Jamestown. On the left near the gates was a very long Colonnade facing the sea, with steps down in the centre leading to the Parade Ground. It had Store Rooms leading off, also a big Dance Hall, Dry Canteen (our shop), Staff Offices, Victualling Office and one or two small offices. On the far side to the left of the Parade Ground were more storerooms. I think these had been originally Barracks Rooms for troops. Near to them was the Wet Canteen and, behind that, the single Men’s Quarters and 2 Married Quarters for R. Marines. Beyond these buildings, out in the open, were Tennis Courts, a Fives Court, an Indoor Swimming Pool and the Rifle Range. Just across the road, outside the gates, were the rest of the Married Quarters, scattered about Ladder Hill - 4 houses set apart and the Verandah, which was three joined together. The Works Dept. was outside too, on the Hill. The Garrison employed Island men here to do all repairs needed to buildings and furniture. They also employed a number of men as messengers and 2 boys to look after the single men. The houses were all built of stone with corrugated iron roofs. Timbers had to be of oak or other hard woods as ‘White Ants’(Termites) were a menace and soon made short work of soft woods.

The Major lived up country in a lovely big mansion called Rosemary Hall[now Rosemary Estate]. It had spacious grounds with lots of trees, well-kept lawns and gardens. There was a small cottage in the grounds for his Batman and family. The houses on Ladder Hill were allotted according to rank, the higher the rank the bigger and better the house and furniture. All had names. Town View was just opposite the gates, then Bleak House, then The Villa, then, on the bend from Ladder Hill towards Half Tree Hollow, was Briar Rose Cottage and, close by, the Verandah. I can’t remember what the houses inside the Barracks were called and there was the Signal Station Bungalow.

Sunday morning, lower Market Street, 1930s [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Sunday morning, lower Market Street, 1930s

The St Helenians are a mixed race, all with a touch of colour in their skin from light tan to black. The Island was first discovered by the Portuguese, then Britain took it over in 1673. Chinese, Dutch, Zulu Prisoners and Black Slaves were all taken there and many shipwrecked sailors landed on its shores, so it is not surprising that they are of mixed origin.

They are friendly people, warmhearted and very trustworthy. Crime is practically unknown, although they have two Policemen to keep Law and Order. The language is Old English, very precise with one impediment. They all sounded the letter ‘v’ like a ‘W’ and, my name being Violet, they all called me Wiolet.

The country people, especially, were very poor. They lived mainly on Fish, Rice, Yams and what vegetables they were able to grow on their small vegetable patch outside their houses. The women are very gifted and do wonderful embroidery, make Lace, do Seed and Bead work and make Raffia Mats and Baskets of all descriptions. On mail days they come from up country carrying their Wares on Donkeys and line up on the Jetty displaying their goods for Passengers to see and buy. Several of them will go on board the ships for the same purpose. The ships always stayed a whole day to unload Stores for the Island and take on Mail, Stores and Passengers for South Africa and collect fresh produce for the ships use. These country people always went barefoot because the roads were so rough. They could only afford to buy cheap shoes and these they wore on Sundays to go to Church, but after the Service one would see them sitting by the roadside, taking off the precious shoes and walking home in their bare-feet. Lena, our maid, always did her work in her bare feet, and after lunch she would stand in a bucket of water with the kitchen scrubbing brush and scrub her feet and, when dry, put on stockings and shoes, then put on a clean dress ready for the afternoon.

The Island was very fertile, especially inland. Every Fruit and Vegetable grew there, English and Tropical side by side. Runner Beans, Tomatoes, Cucumbers and Yams grew all the year around. They didn’t sell them by pounds. It was always a dish of Beans or a dish of Tomatoes roughly about 2lbs, always wrapped in a Banana leaf and tied with Raffia. We had an old country woman who brought our supplies once a week. She wouldn’t come near the house as she was afraid of Jack the dog, but would stand at the Barracks Gates and yell for Lena who would go and collect our stuff.

The most fertile part was called Scotland (as it resembled that country) and the Agricultural Officer and his Staff lived there. They experimented in growing all sorts of Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables. We were friendly with the Officer and he often sent us things. We got some great big Victoria Plums one day. I’d never seen such huge ones. I don’t like Plums but Bert enjoyed them.

There weren’t many Cows on the Island. I think Longwood Farm was the only one with a big herd of cattle and they supplied the Garrison with Milk, but we were more or less rationed and only got a bottle a day; sometimes it would be a Whiskey bottle or a Beer Bottle with straw stuck in the top. Not very hygiene but I always boiled it, and I had to eke it out with tinned milk.

As there wasn’t much meat on the Island and we only got the men’s rations twice a week, we had to have fish on the other days. Ike, the fisherman, used to supply us with Barracuda and Tunny fish; these were coarse brown-coloured fish, but very tasty. We also got Stumps; these were shell-fish, similar to a Lobster, but more stumpy. These were a real delicacy when cooked.

During the 10 years Bert had been in the Service he had always assisted in the Social side. Now he had been put in full charge of all Entertainments. He organised Dances, Whist Drives, Social Evenings, Tennis Parties and he always got plenty of helpers as he was popular with everyone. Once a month he would put on a big dance to which lots of business people and Islanders would attend. The Band was three Island Boys{7} and they were very good and tried to keep up to date. When the Naval Ships came to St Helena, we had to entertain them and always put on a big dance and if they were staying a few days, they would give us a return dance and if they had their own band, would bring them too.

The Garrison had a Cricket Team and played nearly every Saturday against an Island Team (their favourite sport). Life was very hectic during my first three months. There was so much to do and see, so many people to meet. I just loved the Dances, Whist drives, and Socials, but I never liked Swimming, although I would go and watch Bert, and Dennis simply loved the water. I had also to revise my Tennis, as I had let that lapse long ago.

Rev. Walcott [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Rev. Walcott

Just a few days after we got settled into the Signal Station we had a Visitor. I had the Sewing Machine out and was busy making Cushion covers. Dennis’ toys were strewn about the floor, when Lena came and told me that the Rev. Walcott had called. When he came into the Lounge I apologised for the untidiness and he said, “Don’t apologise, This looks 1ike a real home to me. I came to welcome you to the Island and I hope you will enjoy your stay.” Mr. Walcott printed the only paper on the Island. It was called the St Helena Magazine and was first printed in 1899 by the then Parish priest, and Mr. Walcott took it over from his Predecessor in 1921. It was mostly a church magazine as there were four churches; two in town, the Cathedral and one church near Longwood, but as time got on, items of Island news were added, and the comings and goings of all ships and people. We never knew what was going on in the outside world, as we only got two Mail-boats a month, one from South Africa and one from England, so when we did get our papers, books etc. it was stale news.

One day an elderly, poorly dressed man in bare feet knocked on the door and asked if we had any odd jobs he could do. He said he did not want any money, just a bit of rice, tea or sugar would be acceptable. Bert found him a job or two and paid him in kind and ever after Amos was our odd-job man. He came regularly every week, did all the odd jobs like cleaning out the Chicken Run and Rabbit Hutch, and chopped all the sticks and was paid with a supply of food. He lived at Ladder hill just above Town View. Just before we were due to leave the Signal Station he brought us a present. It was a silver butter dish, which had been one of his own wedding presents. He was so poor that he couldn’t afford to buy us anything and insisted that we take his gift, which we had to accept gracefully.

After the New Year Dance in 1931 I said to Bert, “I think Lofty King is falling for Dot Bizarre”. “Yes” he said, “I’ve noticed that.” Lofty was Bert’s assistant in the Canteen and a single man. A few weeks later he confided in Bert and told him he was going to ask the Major’s permission to marry Dot. Well, when he saw the Major, he I tried to turn him off by saying, “You must be absolutely certain because, as you know, all these people have colour in their skins and although we here are not prejudiced and treat them as equal, it may be difficult when you go back to England”. In those days coloured people were not easily accepted at home. Too many of the single men had been marrying St Helenians; that was one reason why Married Families were being sent out. There were already three Island girls among the Garrison Wives when I got there. However the Major gave Lofty a few days to think it over and when he found he was still of the same mind gave his permission, and the wedding was fixed for April. They were married in the afternoon before a church full of people at St. John’s in town. Mr. Walcott officiated and afterwards joined in the festivities. After the reception, the tables were cleared away and a dance held in the evening, It was indeed a big and memorable day for all concerned.

The Wireless was in its early stages in those days and was almost unknown on the Island. The Cable Co. had tried to get it but hadn’t been successful so far. However in March 1932 Harold Thorpe had had a powerful valve set sent out from England. His wife, Laura, had talked so much about it after having heard it in England, and she persuaded him to get a set and try to get results. This he had achieved and he invited Rene, Jeff, Bert and I down to his house to listen in. It was coming through although the reception wasn’t too clear. Music and singing was alright but it was difficult to make out what the announcers and speakers were saying. I think it was coming from America, which was nearer than England. Harold was delighted and thought it was wonderful that it had reached that remote little spot in the South Atlantic Ocean.

1911: Passenger on the SS Papanui

The account below was written in 1968 by Lilian Mary Gillham, a passenger aboard the SS Papanui that caught fire and burned out in James’ Bay in the morning of 12th September 1911. The account starts after she had been informed that her father was sending her and her children to Australia to make a new life{8}.

Plaque by the rescued passengers [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Plaque by the rescued passengers

I wrote and told them to not wait for a reliable boat, but the first boat that was going would do. Well the result was that they sent us by ‘the Papanui’ going to Australia. It was manned by Australians, and had a crowd of girls coming out supposed to be ‘domestics’ but they dressed up with ribbons in their hair and ‘carried on’ with the ships officers. My cabin companion was Miss Simpson - a lovely type of a girl - about my age, coming to Australia to get married, and with her and some of the other people I quite enjoyed it.

After we were out about a week one of the passengers, a ‘Mr Know all’ who used to study the chart every day, said to me “It’s funny but we seem to be in this quarter for about 3 days.” Then one night we landed at St Helena. As we sat on deck we could see the captain and one or two in his room drinking, and I said to one of the officers who was a bit friendly with us “Why are we stopping here?” he said. “Oh, I expect the boss wanted some shore company!” (Well it was the place where Napoleon was kept prisoner). So I said to Miss J, “We will go and explore in the morning.” I put out all the clothes that the children had to put on and all got to bed.

About 10 pm. there was a knock on the door “Get up and get dressed quickly. The ship is on fire.” Cyril was fast asleep and it seemed impossible to wake him up. Enid was up and dressed. Merv, I took the baby down to the deck and left her with a woman, then went back and collected all the blankets and locked my cases. All the time there were taps at the door, “Hurry up and go out on deck.” The first officer stood at the top of the ladder with a loaded revolver in his hands, in case some of the steerage passengers (Italians) attempted to go first{9}. Boats were ready for us to go over to a ship anchored nearby and British men were on it and were lovely, gave up their berths and gave brandy to those who were overcome.

Next morning we were put ashore. Natives{10} were waiting for us and took the baby and we all walked to the barracks. There were lovely buildings and the barracks where the British soldiers were located during the war with South Africa and a nice hospital. We had to sleep on the floor the first night, so I was glad I had collected the blankets from the ship.

Next morning Miss Thompson and I dressed and went to see the magistrate to see if he could find accommodation for us. He said “My dear ladies, you are shipwrecked passengers! I will see that blankets and other things that are in store are sent to make you comfortable.” On the way back we came across one of the passengers and he said, “My wife and I are staying with the constable.” The man he was talking to was dressed in a white suit (one of the residents) and a white topee. He said “Ladies, if you would accept our hospitality, my home is only humble but if you would stay with us we would be most happy.” He immediately took us to a house opposite. It proved to he a lovely home. The sitting room was huge, had a piano at one end and an organ at the other. He brought his wife to see us, a dear little slightly dark lady dressed in white and she smilingly greeted us. When we were alone I said to Miss Thompson “You stay back. He does not know that I have 4 children!

When he came in I told him and he said “We have three so the more the merrier.” And off he trotted to the hospital to bring the children and the blankets etc. We stayed as their guests for about 6 weeks while a boat had to be chartered to bring us to Australia. We left on the Opawa, a New Zealand boat which brought us to Australia.

S.S. Papanui on fire [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
S.S. Papanui on fire

1961: Sailor aboard HMS Puma

Ex Able Seaman Gunner Control Third Class David John Britton D/053652 RN. GSM Borneo, Pingat Jasa Malaysia writes:

It was sometime in October 1961, HMS Puma had left Togo, Lome, to steer South to St Helena. Famous to all who had an interest in Napoleon…unknown to a 17 year-old Ordinary Seaman of the Royal Navy.

First we had to enter King Neptune’s Domain. His most sacred Domain at Longtitude 0 and Latitude 0 the very centre of the Plant Earth. The Bears had to catch me first, and we had awnings rigged all around the ship, which meant I had extra space to run and would not be easily cornered. That is until someone shouted an order to dismount, not as polite as that but I had to surrender. A mouthful of soap and a charge of Being a ‘Silly Ordinary Seaman’ I was sentenced, to become a Trust worthy Golden Shellback, which sounded much better than an ordinary landlubber. Onward to St Helena.

Two days later, at evening we dropped anchor. Foggy dismal weather did not do any favours for the island’s scenery. I had seen a black and white photograph of Stonehenge look more attractive. We were eventually allowed ashore, to be greeted by no one. We could have been a raiding party, but couldn’t see anything to raid. We were looking for a nightclub or a disco bar, like there was on the rock of Gibraltar. The jetty was not designed to encourage people to land.

After a short time of some adventurous sailors attempting to climb Jacob’s ladder, and complaining there was nothing at the top, a local appeared out of the dark and opened a door in the cliff face, and served us with “One bottle of Beer Only.” No one can remember how much it cost but it tasted like Tiger beer; it was probably IPA of sorts. That was the high event of the day; not another soul was seen.

Not allowed ashore the next day except to pick up The Governor{11}, his wife, and friends. The captain and wardroom staff were going to entertain them. You can imagine their delight, especially the ladies; they had a reason to put their best frocks on. They looked terrific for mature women, from my point of view, but long gowns were not designed for rough boat rides. The ladies did not mind at all and it was an honour to look after them and make sure they didn’t get wet. I was Bowman, and showed off my Boat Hook skills, letting go and coming alongside the ship, which was a lot easier than shore side. We had the Accomodation ladder rigged, which meant a clear set of steps to climb instead of a ladder. The ladies thought the Puma looked wonderful.

Hours later we took the party back. On the way I spotted some Dolphins doing what they do best and I trained the search light on them. The coxwain turned into them and followed them. The ladies shrieked with excitement. The Dolphins enjoyed the appreciation.

Helping them back up the rusty ladder, after the governer’s wife threw her shoes onto the jetty first, she turned to me quite confident of her hold on the ladder with a beautiful smile and thanked me for a wonderful time. I thought she was very kind to say so. I hope she remembers the ‘Rub with Nature’ as well as I do. Both ladies had never been on the sea before let alone seen the Dolphins and up close.

That was my memory of St Helena; not a lot but now I realise it was worth writing about and I wish I could be on the island as it is now, to see properly what we were not allowed to see in 1961.

Jamestown, from the bay, 1961 [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]
Jamestown, from the bay, 1961{a}

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]

Laugh at funny memories humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Memories of St Helena]


{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{3}. The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™


{1} However, please note that we reserve the right to choose which contributions will appear on this page, and/or to edit contributions to aid readability.

{2} Proud to have been ‘island born’ while his father was working here for Cable & Wireless.

{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{4} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed.

{5} Sorry; no idea.

{6} Some ex-pat workers choose to live this way even today, it seems.

{7} Can anyone help us identify this band? Please contact us if you can.

{8} For reasons that are not relevant to the story.

{9} Note that ‘Steerage’ was in the bowels of the ship and hence closer to the fire. A similar disregard for human rights happened on the RMS Titanic, the following year.

{10} !!

{11} This would have been Governor Robert Edmund Alford.


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